China draws Myanmar closer as the world turns away

 The site of a Chine­se dam proje­ct in Myitk­yina, Myanm­ar, March 22, 2017. Myanm­ar is turni­ng to China for diplo­matic and econo mic help as the Rohin­gya crisi­s frays relat­ions with the Unite­d State­s.
The site of a Chine­se dam proje­ct in Myitk­yina, Myanm­ar, March 22, 2017. Myanm­ar is turni­ng to China for diplo­matic and econo mic help as the Rohin­gya crisi­s frays relat­ions with the Unite­d State­s. Minz­ayar Oo/Th­e New York ­Times­

BEIJING — For the second time in a week, one of Myanmar’s top leaders is visiting Beijing, as international criticism over the brutal purge of Rohingya Muslims is bringing the neighboring countries together.

Casting aside past misgivings about China’s one-party system, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace laureate, arrived Thursday to attend a conference for international political parties hosted by China’s Communist Party.

After a month of uncomfortable meetings with Western officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pope Francis, and having her Freedom of Oxford award stripped for her failure to criticize the military, she is sure to find a warmer welcome in Beijing.

Preceding her, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the architect of Myanmar’s scorched-earth military campaign to eject the Rohingya, met China’s president Xi Jinping last week. In a show of mutual admiration, Xi described Chinese-Myanmar military relations as the “best” ever.

As Washington begins to pursue sanctions against Myanmar’s army for what U.S. and United Nations officials call a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslim minority, China is taking advantage and filling the gap.

Already spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in Myanmar, China is now also assisting its neighbor in diplomatic efforts to try and help burnish the country’s image in the face of widespread criticism.

Though China has usually been reluctant to become involved in mediation, it has offered to broker talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh, now the host of more than 600,000 Rohingya who fled the military campaign of systematic rape, massacre and arson in Myanmar.

As China moves more aggressively to build a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a prime asset, a border state with a long coastline that offers a strategic outlet to the Indian Ocean.

The predominantly Buddhist country has been an elusive catch for China. Anti-Chinese sentiment pervades Myanmar’s population, and there has been suspicion that China’s infrastructure projects are intended to help China more than Myanmar.

With the military in the ascendancy again and Suu Kyi sidelined and frustrated with the United States’ denunciation of the Rohingya crackdown, an increasingly isolated Myanmar is accepting China’s courtship.

“Myanmar values China’s understanding of the Rakhine issue, which is complicated and delicate,” Suu Kyi said during a recent visit by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, to Myanmar.

Suu Kyi refuses to use the word Rohingya and instead refers to Rakhine, the state where most of the Rohingya live among a Buddhist majority. She has declined to condemn the actions of the Myanmar military.

At the United Nations, China blocked efforts to organize a resolution against Myanmar, and stopped language to ensure that the Rohingya have the right of return to the country.

The crisis over the Rohingya gives China an opportunity to build a reputation as a peace builder, Chinese analysts say. China is already involved in brokering peace talks between warring ethnic groups in Myanmar’s northern region, which is adjacent to the Chinese border.

“China’s broad objective is to let the world see it as the new power broker that can get things, like peace building and political settlements, done,” said Baohui Zhang, professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

As he starts his second term as president, Xi is intent on projecting China’s “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” and an effort to help facilitate the return of the Rohingya would earn China some credit, Baohui said.

A three-point mediation plan offered by Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, does not specifically mention the plight of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom are now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh just over the border from Myanmar.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have held talks about what to do about the refugees, but no Rohingya have been present. It is not clear whether Chinese envoys were present.

“The plan doesn’t commit China to very much in the way of mediation,” said Mary P. Callahan, associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington.

Wang’s proposal called for a cease-fire without a definition of who should stop what activities.

The foreign minister asked for a strengthening of relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and said China would pursue economic development in Rakhine, the poorest area of Myanmar and the center of the military’s purge of the Rohingya.

China is calling for an economic corridor linking India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China that would run through Rakhine.

One of China’s major construction companies is scheduled to start building a $7.3 billion deep-sea port next year at Kyaukpyu, a port town in Rakhine on the Indian Ocean. Pipelines from the port carry gas and oil through Rakhine to southern China.

The visit of Min Aung Hlaing to Beijing earlier this month invigorated a relationship between the Myanmar military and Beijing that had been languishing, said Maung Aung Myoe, professor of international affairs at the International University of Japan and an expert on the Myanmar military.

As the possibility of any military ties with the United States disappears, the Myanmar general can now look more easily to the People’s Liberation Army of China for support, Maung Aung Myoe said.

The United States maintained sanctions against the military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades. But the Obama administration relaxed many of those penalties the year after Suu Kyi won the 2015 elections. There were even plans to invite some Myanmar military officers to the United States for training as a way to counter China’s long-standing ties with the army.

Since the expulsion of the Rohingya, Washington has stopped contacts with the military, and Congress is considering new sanctions.

China had been a major provider of military equipment to Myanmar, but those ties frayed after Beijing sold inferior fighter jets to the air force in the late 1990s, Maung Aung Myoe said. Since 2001, Myanmar was buying more from Russia and Israel, he said. Now, China might return as a provider of military equipment.

Jane Perlez/The New York Times